Ever wondered what actually happens at an Opera North Education workshop? Since I started at Opera North, the Education office has always seemed like an Aladdin’s cave full of colourful props with sporadic bursts of music coming from behind the door. So I didn’t hesitate when I was offered a chance to join an ‘Operations’ workshop this week, which proved a rather entertaining escape from the office.
The ‘Operations’ workshops are commissioned by Opera North’s Education department to run alongside small scale operas, in this case the children’s opera Cautionary Tales!, an adaptation of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children. The aim is to introduce school children to opera before they attend a performance, increasing their understanding of elements that come together to create this genre: words, music and imagery.
I arrived just after the school’s lunchtime, so half of the session had already taken place. In the morning the Year 3 class from Hill Top CE Primary School in Bradford had been introduced to the five stories from Cautionary Tales!: Rebecca Who Slammed Doors For Fun, Henry King Who Chewed Bits of String, Matilda Who Told Lies, Jim Who Ran Away From His Nurse and George Who Played With a Dangerous Toy. Through retelling the tales to each other and acting out snippets in drama games the children were more clued up on the poems than the adults, enlivened by the fun prose and gruesome tales.
I was pulled into a freeze frame game where groups of the class had to choose their favourite elements of the stories. In the space of a minute a child had instructed me to be a lion eating her leg, a grieving mother and then a fire fighter failing a rescue attempt. Not only was I out of breath, my fitness levels certainly can’t match an eight year old, but I was struck by how the class were drawn to the most ghastly and upsetting moments of Hilaire Belloc’s poems. They were insistent that although these sections were funny, they should upset and scare the others, dramatic credibility seemed to constantly be at the forefront of their minds.
The most interesting part of the day happened when the children directed one of the facilitators, a professional singer. He stood at the front of the hall and sang Matilda’s Aunt’s section, where she shouts at Matilda. I thought the children might shy away from directing the adults but I was quickly proven wrong, they relished the challenge of putting their own artistic stamp on the singer. Together the children were able to direct the singer and create a formidable Aunt who left us trembling in our boots. The class changed everything from the tone of the singer’s voice to his facial expressions, movement and interaction to the audience – proving that children can be your harshest critics.
It was even more fun (and tiring) than I had expected it to be but more than anything it has reminded me of how important it is for children to experience outreach programs such as ‘Operations’. The focus was not merely on getting them to understand and enjoy Cautionary Tales!, it was creating an environment where children can experiment artistically. They may never see opera, or go to an Opera North production again, but they have been given an insight into how you can enjoy the arts. As for me, I think I’ll have a bit more caffeine before joining another session!
Opera North’s Education department programmes projects for a range of different age groups with the intent to broaden their cultural horizons. These include Opus, Opera North Children’s Chorus, Verve, Arts Partnership for Past Offenders and an Arts Partnership for the Homeless as well as many others.. Find out more...